49: The Big Box

49: The Big Box

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas

The Big Box

After a girl is grown, her little brothers — now her protectors — seem like big brothers.

~Terri Guillemets

The smell of Norwegian cookies greeted me as I opened the front door to my parents’ home and wiped my dripping nose on the cuff of my jacket. The sounds of muted Christmas carols played on the stereo. A fire burned hot in the fireplace with the sound of popping and crackling.

“The wood is damp,” my father said to no one in particular. “I had better see where that tarp is leaking.” Happy to have a mission, he put on an army-issue parka and his “bunny boots” and headed out the door. He paused. “Were the roads slippery?”

“Not too bad,” I lied, as I shrugged out of my coat. My luggage and dirty laundry were in heaps on the landing.

He paused a moment in the kitchen. “Karen’s home,” he said to my mother and continued his task without interruption.

My mother had just finished brewing a pot of coffee. She came out of the kitchen smiling and was clad in a sweater that was the perfect shade of red for her. She always seemed to look perfect. I looked down at the jeans I was wearing for the second day in a row and my college sweatshirt with the permanent pizza stain on the cuff.

“Hi, Mom,” I said.

“Take your laundry downstairs, I’ll sort it later. Is this all of it?” she asked as she picked up one of my suitcases. I nodded and we carried it down to the laundry room.

I looked around a little, then peeked in one of my brothers’ bedrooms.

“Where’s Dave?”

“Outside, bringing in more wood for tomorrow.”

“Gary?”

“Around somewhere.”

I felt a little letdown. I was a returning college freshman — the least they could have done was greet me with some excitement!

I noticed that my little brother had moved everything he owned into my old room and posters of dirt bikes soaring through the air hung everywhere. I was to stay in the bedroom upstairs — the guest room.

I was starting to feel like a guest in my own home.

I went back to the living room.

“Here, Karen, sit close to the fire,” my dad offered. I was chilled now and the fire felt good, I felt the knot in my stomach unwind just a little.

“I checked the oil in your car and added transmission fluid and windshield washer fluid.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I also added some HEET to your gas tank.”

“Thanks.”

“Lots of snow on your car; the tires are pretty iced.”

“Yeah, it’s snowing pretty hard out there.”

My father looked at me but didn’t say much; I knew he had figured out the roads were a lot worse than I had let on. My mom carried in coffee and the fresh Norwegian krumkake cookies she had made. She and my dad locked eyes and smiled at each other.

“You can open that big present early if you want,” my dad said, trying not to smile.

I looked. There was a big box under the Christmas tree. It looked like a TV box or a box with a small refrigerator in it. My name was on it in large red letters. Puzzled that they would let me open a present without the whole family around, I paused, but not for long. I ripped the paper off the box, lifted the two flaps on top with shaking fingers, and peered inside.

“Surprise!” My younger brother, Gary, popped out of the box with a bow on his head. “Merry Christmas, Karen!” he screamed amid uncontrollable peals of laughter. My dad started snickering.

I sat on the floor, stunned.

I had just completed my first semester of college. I had struggled with independence, money shortages, and finals. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and more than a little lost in life. I had expected some fanfare when I arrived home, not people checking tarps, talking about laundry as if I had never been gone, and moving me to the guest room. And now, instead of a big, surprising present, my brother had jumped out and scared me.

I looked at the box and burst into tears. My family stared at me. After I had hiccupped my last sob I looked down at my lap, ashamed of my outburst. I took a krumkake off the plate. I sat and sniffed. I examined the cookie closely, avoiding the eyes of my family.

My dad said loudly, “I used to get terrible headaches after finals.”

I started to feel better. My father, in his own way, had reminded me that this was my family; I wasn’t a guest in this house. If I fell apart here, they would still want me around. It was okay — I was okay. They were glad I was home, no matter what kind of emotional wreck I was. My father dove into a discussion regarding the maintenance he planned to put my car through the next day; my mother brought me another krumkake and a cup of “de-caf” as she put it.

My little brother came up to me with the bow still in his hair, brown eyes serious.

“Wanna play Monopoly?” he asked. “You can be the car if you want.”

“But that’s your favorite piece,” I said as we sat down in front of the fireplace.

“It’s okay. You can have it. But only today and only because you cried.”

“Thanks.” I smiled and ruffled the bow out of his hair. I lifted an eyebrow. “Thanks for the early Christmas present too.”

“No problem,” he said. “Merry Christmas.” He took a huge bite out of my krumkake.

Looking back I cannot imagine how my little brother felt when I started crying. My parents told me that he missed me when I left for college. He had spent hours planning and wrapping the big box. He had put a festive Christmas bow on his head and watched for my car in the driveway. He raced to the box, tucked himself inside and waited patiently for the better part of an hour while I hauled laundry downstairs, talked cars with my father and, in general, took my time.

My little brother, in his heart, had given himself to me for Christmas.

Now, as a mother, my heart is touched in many ways by the hand of a child. But I still remember the Christmas of the Big Box because it was the first time I realized how much children really give of themselves and how easy it is to damage their small spirits.

I tease Gary about giving himself to me for Christmas, because after all it’s my job as his sister. He denies, with embarrassment, having done so. I realize now how sweet the gesture was, and how much he cared that I was returning home for a visit. I often wonder what his response would be to the teasing now if I had been more mature when the original gift had been offered, if I had embraced him and given him the big kiss he deserved.

~Karen J. Olson

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